The key to getting smarter is not what you think
Modern neuroscience suggests that less than 5% of the information we process takes place north our jaw line. Think about that for a second. What does that mean for the other 95% of the information we take in and process? It is what is referred to as Embodied Cognition: cognitive processes occurring in the body.
What does this mean for our view and understanding of intelligence and thinking? It means we have a lot to learn, and that learning might not quite be what you think. In Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology (a great book, but you’ll need a big pocket), Dr Daniel Siegel defines mind as “an embodied and relational process that regulates the flow of energy and information.” According to the most cutting edge science, our mind is not just the thinking in our head, but also includes all the information we take in and process via all our senses and experiences as we move thru and interact with the world including others around us. Our body is constantly taking in and processing information via felt sensations thru our nervous system which is dispersed throughout our body. Our entire body is a bio-chemical-electrical network sending information back and forth from the brain that lives in our skull to the rest of our bodies, and the rest of our mind.
So why do we think that all our thinking and knowing takes place in the head? Oversimplification and old, outdated, incomplete science. What science is now telling us is that the overwhelming majority of information (over 95% of data) that we receive is processed in our bodies. Unfortunately, as a culture, we’ve largely stopped paying attention to what that data and our associated experiences are telling us.
The good news
The knowledge and application of the concept that our body is responsible for the vast majority of data processing in our bodies comes as really good news. The information that is processed in the brain tends, most of the time for most people, to be routed thru one of two processing centers: either the amygdala or the frontal cortex. The amygdala tends to get the stressful, life or death, fight or flight stuff, along with anything that we perceive as stressful (which is far too much in our modern, high tech, connected world, but I’ll save that subject for another article). Everything else tends to route thru and be filtered by the frontal cortex. The frontal cortex isn’t able to process very much information at a time (about 120 bits/sec– for context, listening to someone else speak takes up about 60 bit/sec), and some of the available processing gets eaten up by the ego running as a filter, constantly chiming in with an opinion of what that incoming information means to me. So while the frontal cortex is good at problem solving and thinking, and is essential for survival, it doesn’t have a lot of power available from a data processing standpoint.
The good news is that by learning how to access and utilize the untapped majority of data processing power available and occurring in our body, we in effect get a huge upgrade to our personal tech. It’s like the comparable upgrade from going from a flip phone to the new iPhone. And it’s right there waiting for you to tune in.
What is the difference between the thinking that happens in our heads and embodied cognition, and how do we know which is which? We are all familiar with the notion of thinking. It’s largely our default mode of dealing with things and solving problems. Sometimes we roll our eyes upward, as if looking into our head for answers. We often tell ourselves and others, “let me think about that for a minute.” And that is what we do.
Embodied cognition, on the other hand, is a different experience. It’s the insight moment we get after we’ve decided to stop thinking about the project and go for a walk instead. It’s the gut feeling or intuition we might have. It sometimes presents as an internal sense of knowing, where we know that we know, but we don’t know how. It is a different experience, and over time and by giving it attention, we can develop an awareness of the felt sensations associated with it and how to glean what it is trying to tell us.
The ‘How To’ of Embodied Cognition
There are many ways to increase our awareness and the utility of our embodied cognition. You’ve no doubt discovered at least a few of them on your own. Many people have had the answer pop into their heads only after they stopped thinking about it. Albert Einstein claims to have never had huge, meaningful insight in the lab, that most of his greatest insights occurred while shaving. When I feel stumped, I’ll often go for a walk and more often than not, an answer will simply arise, often when I’m thinking about something else, or better yet, nothing at all.
Rich environments and experiences naturally help shift us into a state of embodied awareness. Being in the natural world floods our senses with experience. We feel the breeze on our skin as simultaneously see the dappled light play thru the rippling of the leaves in the tree tops. We hear the birds chirp and the interplay of wind and leaf. Smells from blooming flowers or fresh cut grass flood our sense of smell. The richness of the environment and the experience far exceeds the 120 bits/sec our frontal lobe can process, so out of necessity, we shift gears. The front lobe down shifts and internally we look elsewhere to process the fully HD stream of information coming in; we look to embodied cognition to process the information, make decisions, move thru space, and keep ourselves safe. When that happens, we’ve flipped the switch from flip phone to super-computer. Despite already processing the tons of data coming in from our environment, we still have plenty of processing power left over. Enough to instinctually (another term used to referred to embodied intelligence) jump back when we see a snake on the trail or bees swarming from a ground hive, or enough to instantly solve the project we were working on back in the office. That’s where insight occurs, that ah-ha moment that feels so good.
Besides getting outside into nature, there are a multitude of other ways to create our own rich experience without going outside. Anything that floods our senses, connects us to our bodies, or feels creative can be an effective way to tap into embodied awareness and cognition: playing or listening to music, dancing, yoga, qigong, focused breathing, any and all forms of exercise (jogging, weight lifting, etc), anything artistic (sketching, coloring, painting, etc), hula hooping, balance boards, water (a shower or even washing your hands), the list goes on.
All it takes to start cultivating the switch for our own inner super-computer is to dedicate a little time during your day to some of these activities. Go with what you enjoy, whatever excites you–as enjoyment releases the feel-good neurochemicals that help make new practices stick and become new habits. And experiment with others to find out what else you enjoy and what else works for you. And then, just trust and pay attention. Don’t try to force anything. Don’t over-think it. Just be patient, trust and let it happen.
As you start to incorporate these actions into your day, focus on consistency. It doesn’t have to be the same activity every day or to follow a rigid structure but try to intersperse some moments into your day where you bring your attention into your body and its felt sensations. Even something as simple as following the in and out of your breath in your belly works. So does drawing your attention into the points of contact where your body meets the floor and/or the chair. Over time, the patterns and the habits shift so that functioning from a more embodied state, where you are most effective, becomes less the exception and more the norm.
What this means for our day-to-day
By cultivating our skill at tapping into our embodied intelligence, we develop the skills to be more intelligent and creative. These skills can give us the an edge at work and the results are most profound as the complexity of the project increases. Problems and projects that are intricate and involved, that have too many details, parts and piece to keep it all in your head are where embodied cognitive skills really shine.You don’t have to keep it all in your head; instead flip the switch to embodied intelligence, bringing your super-computer online to find complex, novel, creative solutions. Often, when addressed from the workings of embodied cognition, these problems seem to almost solve themselves as novel solutions bubble up to the surface! If your work or passion is more creative in nature, embodiment practices and exercises help get you out of your head and into the flow so you can best create.
Turning embodied cognition back inside
While tapping into our embodied cognition can have powerful results for solving problems and devising creative solutions in our work or home lives, perhaps the most profound results come from applying this powerhouse of intelligence and awareness inwards. Coaching, specifically certain modalities, such as Presence-based coaching, focussing techniques, and other practices that bring awareness to the felt senses and somatic occurrences in the body foster the cultivation of embodied cognition in way that both benefits our problem solving and creativity, but also builds our knowledge of self, helping us be better informed in making the decisions that most closely affect our lives and our direct experiences. This knowledge of self that comes from embodied cognition differs from the egoic sense of self that most of us are accustomed to that lives in our frontal cortex. The egoic self is the storyteller: it strives to filter and tweak reality to fit into the storyboard that it created some time ago. The embodied self knowledge, when we learn how to access and acknowledge it, provides an unadulterated view of our inner reality. From this vantage point, we are able to gain clarity about what is most important to us, what makes us fulfilled, satisfied & happy, and how to make decisions that aligned with what we know to be most important to us.
While we know more than ever about the science behind accessing our greatest intelligence, happiness and satisfaction, much of the same access to technology that informs us also creates its own challenges when it comes to implementing and incorporating what we are learning. The prevalence of technology and being constantly connected creates a habit nature that, if followed blindly, keeps us in our heads, overstimulated, and can interfere with our efforts to cultivate embodied cognition.
In the information age, seemingly all the world’s information is available via a super-computer at our fingertips. Constantly stimulating our brains with external information creates habit forming behavior, triggering the release of addictive neurochemicals while ingraining connections in our brain that encourage us to continue and repeat those same actions. The tendency becomes to refresh and re-update our feed and to seek to find all the answers externally, ironically, in articles like these. (Yes, please, of course click the ‘Follow’ button, join my mailing list and keep reading, but, please, find your own healthy balance!)
With so much information available externally, why take the time to cultivate our own internal super-charged intelligence, cognition and knowing? Because there is so much that external sources can’t provide us: solutions to our own unique questions, outlets for our personal creativity, and answers to the deeper questions of who we are and what is most important to us.
In order to learn how to flip the switch of our own internal tech, that of tuning into the depths of the knowledge and intelligence held in our body, we also need to learn to flip the switches around us, powering down the silicon-based tech that inundates us. We need to consciously create space from our smartphone, computers and tablets and take time to dance, paint, walk in the woods, or even just tune in to the sensation of the water on our skin in the shower.
And as a Bonus!
Cultivating awareness of embodied intelligence has a lot to offer. Scanning the titles of many articles being posted lately, we seem to be collectively very interested in and motivated by being smarter, more creative, and better at problem solving. There are at least as many articles being published and read about how to be happier. The good news here is that in cultivating embodied cognition and incorporating some of these practices into your daily life, not only will you become smarter, more creative, and a more effective problem solver, but also, by shifting attention and energy from the head into the body, you draw attention away from the judgemental and self-critical part of the brain in favor of increasing knowledge of self, leading to making better you decisions and a happier, more content state of mind.
If you want more (external) information, check out these books: Daniel J. Siegel’s The Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology, Stealing Fire by Kotler & Wheal, and Guy Claxton’s Intelligence in the Flesh.
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